Lean on Pete

I went into this thinking it’d be a sweet, moving film about a boy and his horse… this isn’t that film.

Charley is played by Charlie Plummer, he lives with his Dad and life is pretty bleak.  He gets a job at a racecourse, meets some interesting people and then meets and forms a bond with Lean on Pete the racehorse.  Chloe Sevigny and Steve Buscemi as Bonnie and Del are the two main characters he meets at the racecourse, both actors are indy movie staples and rightfully so as they command the screen in their every scene.

Both Charley and Pete are characters that you want the best for. They are both vulnerable, innocent and victims of circumstances not of their making. It becomes clear early on that Pete is no longer in his prime and with an uncertain future for them both, Charley has to make a decision.

This is a movie of vignettes as Charley encounters a variety of people and situations who appear into his life then fairly soon after disappear.  Some you are relieved when they go and some you wish would hang around. It really is Charlie Plummer’s movie and he carries Charley’s life as it tangibly weighs heavily upon his too young shoulders.

With many powerful moments in this movie, there’s one that comes as a complete shock and is real punch in the stomach for the viewer, I think I actually exclaimed ‘Oh f***!’.  I hope just saying that isn’t a spoiler, though I’m not saying where in the movie and anything about what happens more than the movie shifts completely as a result.

This isn’t a movie with a very wordy script and there’s little in the way of incidental music, but every frame is beautifully composed.  It’s to the skill of Andrew Haigh and Charlie Plummer and the choices they make in telling this story that makes this film such a compelling watch.

I don’t want to give the impression that this film is relentlessly bleak, because it isn’t, but it’s certainly no ‘Mamma Mia’.

And again, I have to express my continuing admiration for Andrew Haigh, he excels in the kind of thoughtful, character-driven pieces that cinema requires and that leave you feeling fulfilled and enriched.

StoryScreenplay by Andrew Haigh, based on the novel by Willy Vlautin
CastCharlie Plummer, as Charley Thompson
Steve Buscemi, as Del Montgomery
Travis Fimmel, as Ray Thompson
Chloe Sevigny, as Bonnie
DirectorAndrew Haigh
Running Time121 mins

Feud: Bette and Joan

Coming very late to ‘Feud’ (2017) from Ryan ‘Glee’ Murphy, I was thankfully saved from a trek across the internet for it by the BBC, I was very keen to get hold of this; Davis, Crawford, Sarandon & Lange, what’s not to love?  My formative years were spent watching old movies and most of all my go-to was Bette Davis.  She would tear up the screen in ‘All About Eve’, tear me up (emotionally) in ‘Now, Voyager’ and then in her later years come to define the wicked old crone in ‘The Anniversary’ and ‘The Nanny’.  Many actors remain the same person throughout their career but Bette Davis adapted beautifully as she aged, never seeming to attempt to remain young and never being afraid to be the grotesque.   The only movie I’d seen of Joan Crawford’s happened to be ‘Baby Jane’ (unless you count ‘Mommie Dearest’) which I’d seen a number of times. I also knew of the rivalry that came between these two contemporaries from an autobiography I’d read some 20 years ago about Bette Davis.

Previously, I’d only ever seen Joan Crawford portrayed as a monster and I went into this show with that bias in mind.  To begin with, my bias was reaffirmed; Joan comes across as vain, temperamental, manipulative and difficult, whilst Bette is fun, sociable, creative and more intent on doing a good job rather than being seen as the great beauty Joan still thought she was.

I loved the synchronicity between Bette’s animosity with Joan and her later dislike of Faye Dunaway who went on to portray the monstrous version of Joan in ‘Mommie Dearest’; and as with the titular feud, she really never forgot:

I think this clip exemplifies the main difference in perception I have with Bette Davis & Joan Crawford.  They both had times when they were truly awful, but with Bette I find it funny and with Joan I’m more disturbed, it seems to be coming from a much darker place.

As the show plays out, the characters deepen and you gain some understanding of Joan’s motives and how she was created through a will to survive an industry that only seems to love its’ stars for 5-10 years then turns them over for the next big thing.  You also then see Bette’s dysfunctional life at home, mostly through her relationship with her daughter B.D., and the games she plays at work to manipulate people to propel herself forward at the expense, professionally and emotionally, of her co-star.  The skill of this show is that you end up maybe not loving but definitely understanding Joan & Bette; seeing less of the star and more of the person – that’s basically the whole point of factual drama.

The secondary characters are more variably portrayed, not having seen Olivia de Havilland interviewed, I totally get why she may be upset by her Catherine Zeta Jones’s version of her.  I felt she came across as being callous and to re-use the word she’s tried to sue FX for maintaining she used about her sister, a bitch.  Hedda Hopper (the amazing Judy Davis) and Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) also seem one-dimensional and unsurprising, I expected both of them to come across that way and I learnt nothing new.

As an insight into behind-the-scenes production of movies and as an historical record of Hollywood during the 1960’s, this is as good as any I’ve seen.  Even with all its negative qualities, it still looks glamorous and everything you want it to be.  It also leads you to investigating more for yourself.  Straight after this, I went to my movie collection and pulled out the DVD of ‘Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte’ that I’d never got round to watching.  That one isn’t going down as an all-time fave but it was gloriously over-acted and hammy (not easily going to forget the magnificently fake chopped off hand at the start of the movie).  It was also a revelation to see how beautiful Bruce Dern was in his late 20’s.

If ‘Feud’ does nothing else but make you want to watch or re-watch an old movie then it’s done a good job.

CastJessica Lange, as Joan Crawford
Susan Sarandon, as Bette Davis
Alfred Molina, as Robert Aldrich
Judy Davis, as Hedda Hopper
Jackie Hoffman, as Marmacita
SeasonS1 (2017): 8 episodes

A Star is Born

It’s fitting that this is one of my first pieces given the connection between this website name and a previous iteration of this movie.   In this version of ‘A Star is Born’ there’s also a respectful nod to Judy Garland not long after we first meet Lady Gaga’s Ally that shows this version isn’t afraid to embrace its past.

On seeing the trailer some months ago, I was immediately predisposed to thinking that this was going to be incredible.  And it is.

This movie almost seems impossible not to be great; it’s the perfect movie for re-imagining with each generation.  The love story and the rise and fall of stardom are universal themes and a new version will simply make it relevant for today.  It’s also a cautionary tale that Hollywood curiously chooses to retell given that if ever there was a bad guy in this story, the industry that creates and maintains these stars fits perfectly.

The first version in 1937 received seven Oscar nominations, winning one for the story.  The second (and the only other version that I’ve seen) added the musical element that its taken on ever since and received 6 nominations.  Whilst Judy Garland is undoubtedly why anyone would watch this movie, James Mason is utterly believable as a broken man on a rapid descent from stardom.  Judy’s belting out ‘The Man That Got Away’ as she and her band play in a deserted bar is one of the key moments from her incredible career.

But back to 2018…

Bradley Cooper as Jackson and Lady Gaga as Ally feel completely equal in this version where in the Garland/Mason version they hadn’t so much.  They both have a huge story, both are beautiful, believable and they both break your heart.  I know Gaga divides opinion and I think you’d have a hard time watching this if you really don’t like her.  But if you like her even just a little bit, this can’t help but make you love her.

With Bradley Cooper, you’d think there was a risk in letting an actor not known for his  singing represent a character who’s meant to be Pearl Jam or Nirvana level famous, but there’s no risk here, he sings like he was born to it.   This movie shines when Cooper and Gaga are together on screen creating such chemistry that you miss them when the story temporarily shifts elsewhere.  When they both sing on stage, especially for the first time, you see a jaded star rekindle the joy he’d lost in performing next to someone tentatively reaching for that chance to shine having long since given up.  It’s incomprehensibly moving.

(I’d recommend watching the clip below after seeing the movie.  It isn’t a spoiler but may lessen the impact of the scene)

I was captured at how beautifully this movie is shot with some intensely intimate close ups that reflect the intimacy of the relationship; the view from the back of the stage out to the expanse of the audience giving us some sense of what the performer experiences; the wide open spaces of the Arizona desert that make even a wind farm look beautiful; the yellow sky and the palm trees of Los Angeles – this is how you want America to look in a movie.

The script must be sure to win awards; there’s very natural sense to the characters’ talking to each other, a lot of this is due to the skill of the acting but also to the deftness of the dialogue.  I was especially drawn to how you see the two leads get to know each other, as this often seems to be too quickly and clumsily done on screen.

In one of the scenes that shows the negative side of fame, we see Jack bundled into a car after a concert escaping a crowd who seem more like an angry mob than a group of appreciative fans.  Then later, we see him in a shop being photographed by a checkout assistant who basically says that she’s powerless to resist the urge to intrude.

Given that this movie is about two singer-songwriters, the music in this film is beautifully composed, written and performed.  Some of the songs belie the musical nature of the movie only in that they drive the narrative forward.  However, the songs stand alone as instant classics with ‘Shallow’ being the big hitter, to name some of the other songs would be a little spoiler-ish.  I’d recommend only listening to the soundtrack after seeing the movie.   Apparently, Lady Gaga compiled the album and included a lot of dialogue snippets; there’s a reason the album was released the same day as the movie.

I think any established director would be proud of what they’d achieved with this movie, but for Bradley Cooper’s first time in a dual role both behind the camera and in front, this is indeed something special.

StoryScreenplay by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters
Based on the screenplay of the 1937 film by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker & Alan Campbell
CastBradley Cooper, as Jackson Maine
Lady Gaga, as Ally Maine
Sam Elliott, as Bobby Maine
Andrew Dice Clay, as Lorenzo Campano
DirectorBradley Cooper
Running Time136 mins

Anne with an ‘E’ (S1)

As I started to watch the first episode, I couldn’t help but remember with fondness the 1980’s version of ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and what I thought were the definitive Anne (Megan Follows), Marilla (Colleen Dewhurst) and Matthew (Richard Farnsworth).  My finger was hovering over the stop button through the first part of the first episode when the new cast didn’t step back 33 years and recreate this show from my childhood.

I’m so glad I didn’t turn away from this.  I have to say, by the end of this first episode I was in tears and as I was watching it on the train, I felt a little self-conscious.

The spirit of all the characters I loved is still there but the creators of this show have developed them for the modern age.  Huge liberties are taken with the story; though comfortingly familiar elements remain such as Anne getting her friend Diana drunk, dyeing her red hair green and the croup incident. There are at first what seems to be some very anachronistic takes on race, gender and sexuality for a show set over a century ago though on reflection, as previous shows set in this time period depict people in a certain way it demonstrates that portrayals are often based on the time they are made in and not of the time they are reflecting.

I applaud this show for not going down the cutesy line it could have done but instead they tackle some uncomfortable themes.  Set in the early 1900s, it would be unrealistic to think an orphan child would have had the happiest of starts in life – there are hints at a very dark past for Anne but I think that only makes it so much more impactful when she finally finds two people to love her and who she can love back.

While all credit goes to our new Anne (Amybeth McNulty) who carries this show perfectly, I have developed a new found love for Geraldine James as Marilla.  Her portrayal of a repressed middle aged spinster who very slowly comes alive with the love of the new addition to her family is stunning. Her depiction of heartbreak, longing and ultimately love and joy is beautifully acted.

This show isn’t about reliving the past, it’s about embracing the future.  As the title song says, ‘we’re ahead by a century’.

NetworkCBC / Netflix
CastAmybeth McNulty, as Anne Shirley
Geraldine James, as Marilla Cuthbert
R.H. Thomson, as Matthew Cuthbert
Dalila Bela, as Diana Barry
Lucas Jade Zumann, as Gilbert Blythe
SeasonS1 (2017): 7 episodes
S2 (2018): 10 episodes

An Italian vacation, farming up North, a weekend in Nottingham and coming out in Atlanta

Gay movies, or ‘movies on a gay theme’ have a lot of responsibility these days.  They can’t just be dramas or romantic comedies, they have to portray a variety of people who just happen to fall in love with folks of their own gender.   With a few exceptions, for decades we’ve been the funny best friend, the murder victim (or murderer) or die of an AIDS-related illness.  These portrayals exist in real life but so do many others and as the movies released recently go to show, there are as many different stories to tell as there are people.

Not intentionally, we saw four ‘gay’ movies in the space of a couple of weeks and really if this continues, we’ve seen a renaissance in the portrayal of how we’re represented on celluloid and long may it continue.

Call Me By Your Name

StoryScreenplay by James Ivory, based on the book by Andre Aciman
CastArmie Hammer, as Oliver
Timothee Chalamet, as Elio Perlman
Michael Stuhlbarg, as Samuel Perlman
Amira Casar, as Annella Perlman
DirectorLuca Guadagnino
Running Time132 mins

The first one was the much-lauded ‘Call Me By Your Name’, beautifully shot and impeccably scripted, this is delivered as a modern(ish) dream in the sense of a ‘Room With a View’ (unsurprising given the James Ivory connection).  This is a film that takes you on a holiday that you can relax and melt in to, nothing massively dramatic or contentious happens and everyone behaves pretty decently towards one another.  The bohemian family and environment make it so that it really doesn’t seem to matter what someone’s sexuality is, the only conflict appearing to come from within the individual, or ultimately when the holiday ends and you go back in to the world.  This is an important moment in gay cinema as it shows a very different side of itself than has been seen much before, or at least not seen with this level of praise and publicity. I must admit to feeling not very connected with the characters and while I enjoyed the movie, I wasn’t AS moved by it as I’ve found others to be.  Maybe as one friend said about my reaction to this movie, I’m heartless…

God’s Own Country

StoryScreenplay by Francis Lee
CastJosh O’Connor, as Johnny Saxby
Alec Secareanu, as Gheorghe Ionescu
Gemma Jones, as Deidre Saxby
Ian Hart, as Martin Saxby
DirectorFrancis Lee
Running Time104 mins

Next was ‘God’s Own Country’ and what could easily be Britain’s answer to ‘Brokeback Mountain’, though that movie didn’t include someone elbow deep in cow’s bum or two guys rolling round with their pants pulled down in the mud. Josh O’Connor as disaffected farmer Johnny inhabits the role perfectly; his skill as an actor is highlighted even more when you see how he creates characters so far away from Johnny as in ‘The Durrells’. I’m curious to see his take on Prince Charles in the third season of ‘The Crown’.  Johnny’s behavior rings true as he punctures his daily grind with random encounters and getting wasted at the pub whenever he can.  Who’s he ever going to meet in such a remote location and what prospects does he have other than what he already has.  Luckily, and in a pre-Brexit UK (would this story be possible after March 2019?) Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) enters Johnny’s world and things begin to change.  Alec Secareanu is perfect as Gheorghe, seemingly very laid back, quiet but emotionally free – the antithesis of Johnny.

Again, as with ‘Call Me By Your Name’, the relationship of the two leads doesn’t create a huge level of opposition (aside from a nasty encounter down the pub) and it’s more the conflict within Johnny than anything external.   Some of the most touching moments in the movie come from Johnny’s relationship with his Dad, two people both uncomfortable in expressing themselves freely.


StoryScreenplay by Andrew Haigh
CastTom Cullen, as Russell
Chris New, as Glen
DirectorAndrew Haigh
Running Time97 mins

By far, I felt the greatest connection with Weekend by Andrew Haigh; having loved Haigh’s TV show ‘Looking’ (2014-2016), I decided to get this movie on DVD.  As an aside, Andrew Haigh certainly seems one to watch having been consistently good in his choices of stories and their execution.  The connection I felt with ‘Weekend’ came partly through having spent my formative years away from home at university in the East Midlands but also from being of a similar age (then) and socio-economic background to the two protagonists.  The realism of the situations portrayed, the people they meet, the places they go, the feelings they have all came echoing through to me.   This would be impossible if it weren’t for an un-romanticized script and two very real performances from Tom Cullen and Chris New.  The filming being with pretty basic hand-held cameras also lends itself to a documentary feel and makes it easy for this to become believable.

Love, Simon

StoryScreenplay by Isaac Aptaker & Elizabeth Berger based on ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ by Becky Albertalli
CastNick Robinson, as Simon Spier
Jennifer Garner, as Emily Spier
Josh Duhamel, as Jack Spier
Katherine Langford, as Leah Burke
DirectorGreg Berlanti
Running Time110 mins

Lastly, we saw ‘Love, Simon’ in the cinema. I knew director Greg Berlanti from his work as creator of ‘Flash’, ‘Arrow’ & ‘Supergirl’ and was always taken by how these shows would feature gay characters where their sexuality wasn’t that much of a big deal. ‘Love, Simon’ is the 21st Century answer to the John Hughes high-school movies of the 1980s (the look, the poppy soundtrack, the high-school setting, the comedic moments). In the 80’s, it would have been impossible to feature a positive gay character and I think it shows how far society has come that 30 years later we get to see someone like Simon in a mainstream teen movie.  Like the other three movies, the conflict is largely from within the main character coming to terms with the fact that they are different; but not only that, they are different in a way that is very easy to hide.

I think this movie is all about that conflicting desire to hide because of the shame bestowed by society and the overpowering urge to be free to live out your own story not set by the terms of others.  Again, this is a milestone in cinema where we see gay characters break away from traditional caricatures; for these four movies to come in relatively quick succession is very heartening.  The overriding sense that pervades these four movies is one of hope and to quote Harvey Milk, ‘you gotta give them hope’.